Tuesday, February 2, 2016

In support of English literacy and a love of learning

In support of English literacy /
Students benefiting from the Morocco Library Project.

During a recent walk through Town & Country Village, an upscale outdoor shopping mall in Palo Alto, California, near Stanford University, I crossed paths with a most interesting window display at independent bookseller Books, Inc., that immediately captured my attention.

Instead of witnessing a display of current New York Times best-selling books, I glimpsed a colorful collection of young adult books, including Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, The Major Poetry of Ralph Waldo Emerson and The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Books, Inc. window display /
Promoting awareness of the Morocco Library Project. 
In the center of the window display were a pair of signs. One read: Morocco Library Project. The other: Support the Morocco Library Project with Books Inc.! A similar display featuring children's literature awaited customers inside the bookstore, too.

What I learned is this: The Morocco Library Project is Americans and Moroccans building libraries together in support of English learners in Morocco. The group has a Facebook page and you can also find them via LinkedIn.

The mission of the Morocco Library Project is simple: It is designed to inspire and support English literacy and a love of learning in Morocco, and to build a lasting bridge of friendship and peace between East and West. In Morocco, most students learn to speak English as their third language -- yes, third -- after their native Arabic and French.

According to the organization's website, I learned: "We strive to work with underserved communities, where a single library will make a huge difference. For each location, we work with teachers to understand the particular need and to curate a collection of books and other materials for the students and community. The students do a lot of the work putting the library together. This is truly a partnership."

The Morocco Library Project launched its first project, the Erfoud Library, at the Lycée Moulay Rachid, in April 2015. It is located in the eastern part of the country near the Algerian border. I learned that this library supports highly motivated students from under-privileged families in an after-school program called English Access, and it's also open to other students in the area. While interest in learning English is rapidly growing, until recently, there were few resources to support it.

A love of learning /
Young students at the Erfoud Library in Morocco.
However, thanks to the effort of the Morocco Library Project, both in the U.S. and abroad, about 650 books for all ages and in a variety of genres, including art, geography, literature, nature, and science -- as well as Kindles, games, puzzles and an extensive collection of National Geographic magazines -- dot the colorful library. The collection includes about 100 children's books, too.

After a successful launch of the Erfoud Library last year, the Morocco Library Project is now starting new libraries in Taroudant and Essmara in the south, and in Tétouan in the north, for a girls' high school, the Lycée Khadija Oum El Mouminine, near Gibraltar. All are in underserved communities with students eager to study English.

Recently, Moroccan author Laila Lalami, who last year won the Arab American Book Award for her most recent novel The Moor's Account, donated autographed copies of her books to the Moroccan Library Project for distribution in its libraries.

Last month, the Minister of Education in Morocco launched a new nationwide program, CIRCLE (Club of Instructional Resources for Culture and Language Enhancement), and the Erfoud Library was selected as one of the first locations.

So, as you can see, good things are happening with this meaningful organization as they strive to turn collections of books into libraries.

The Morocco Library Project is funded entirely by donations from the public. To learn more about this worthwhile project and how to donate, visit their website: http://www.moroccolibraries.org.

Photos: Window display at Books, Inc. by Michael Dickens. Morocco Library Project photos courtesy of their website.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

A Tuesday Night Memo: A few thoughts on turning six

Michael Dickens / A selfie.
Hooray! A Tuesday Night Memo turns six today.

Here's some background about my blog:  I started writing A Tuesday Night Memo in January 2010 as a means of sharing musings about my life filled with music, sport, and urban travel, and to foster community with my friends, family and Facebook acquaintances while giving me an opportunity to hone my writing skills. People who know me well know that I'm passionate about music, sport, and urban travel. Additionally, I have used my blog as a vehicle for writing about art, food, fashion, religion and gardening. Sharing news and photos about our flower gardens at home always seem to generate great interest and enthusiasm. Perhaps, it's the pretty shapes and colors of our flowers that others find appealing?

Up to now, I have "blogged" 309 entries for A Tuesday Night Memo, which collectively have received over 63,000 page views. Among many subjects I have written about include: my appreciation of tennis champion Roger Federer, a history of the world as seen through 100 objects, classical music conductor Gustavo Dudamel, validating our travel through our photographs, Jerry Seinfeld's Internet comedy Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, and a profile of Issues, my favorite news and magazine shop that's located in Oakland, Calif. I have included my interest in digital photography within my blog, which has enabled me to illustrate my posts with nice visuals to match the words I write.

The feedback you have given me after reading my blog posts is not only very much appreciated, but I also find it very useful. Most of it has been positive, but sometimes it's also been critical. Whether good or bad, I've found the feedback you provide to be a valuable learning tool. From time to time, I like to sneak a peek at my blog's statistics, which are the key indicators that show how many total "hits" my blog has received, which stories have been read the most, and what countries comprise the blog's readership. While modest, the numbers are nevertheless interesting.

Here are a few fun facts about A Tuesday Night Memo I thought you might enjoy:

Since May 2010 (the earliest date data is available), my blog has been read in dozens of different countries, including the U.S., Canada, Mexico, France, Morocco, Turkey and Hong Kong -- even Brazil, India, Vietnam, and Australia. The top five countries reading my blog include the U.S, Germany, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom.

* The most widely-read blog entry in terms of "hits" was one I wrote back in December 2010 about "CNN International: Connecting the world," in which I explored the intelligent -- albeit sometimes irreverent -- manner that CNN International delivered the news and how it different from it's American cousin based in Atlanta, Ga. Other top "hits" include musings about the artist Pablo Picasso and the British comedian Ricky Gervais. Go figure!

Looking ahead, I hope to explore many different topics including:

* Connecting our world through digital music and media.
* My ongoing fascination with British television.
* What we can learn by visiting museums.

In the meantime, I've thoroughly enjoyed sharing my thoughts with you throughout the past six years, and I look forward to sharing my thoughts about another exciting year that awaits all of us.

Stay tuned.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The pleasure of our winter gardens, El Niño edition

Our calla lilies are the stars of our winter gardens.

One of the simple pleasures of homeownership in northern California is being able to maintain a garden year-round, including wintertime.

Occasionally, daytime temperatures climb into the low-to-mid 60s, mixing cloudy with sunny skies. With apologies to my dear friends back east and in the Midwest, who've put up with more than their share of sub-freezing temperatures and snowy blizzards, we do get spoiled this time of year by our moderate climate.

Here, however, we've been waiting what seems like an eternity for a good El Niño season to arrive. Having endured a long drought the past couple of years -- last January we had zilch for rain -- since the beginning of 2016, we've received several quality inches of much-needed precipitation. Maybe, it's been too much of a good thing.

The green grass covering our modest-sized yard has grown so tall that it's beginning to resemble the rough of a British links golf course. Not exactly pristine. Hopefully, one of these days, once it dries out, I'll have a chance to mow and edge the lawn and pull some weeds. The upside to all of our much-needed rain -- yes, there is an upside -- is our winter flowers are having quite the season to remember.

In taking stock of what all of January's rain has meant to our garden, consider this: our camellia bush, which has consistently bloomed since November, still has many pink and white camellias; ditto for our azaleas, which have enjoyed a tremendous rebirth. Our fuchsias are experiencing consistent growth thanks to the abundance of this month's rain, and a few of our rose bushes are still producing blooms.

Finally, the first of our calla lilies, which grow on the usually shady east side of our house, have arrived on schedule. One of them has begun to open its spathe (the part of the lily that is white and shaped like the bell of a trumpet) while a couple of others are about a week or so away from blooming. By spring, we should have a couple dozen fully-bloomed calla lilies.

Each of our plants and flowers has its own growth cycle during the year. Luckily, nature is our ally and there's always something in bloom.

Photos: By Michael Dickens ©2016.

Friday, January 15, 2016

David Bowie was a pop genius who kept getting it right

David Bowie
A truly great artist, beautiful melodist, and elegant gentleman.

Like so many of my generation, waking up to the news of David Bowie's death was a shocker. The first words I heard when my clock radio alarm sounded at 6 a.m. on Monday morning, the start of a new work week, came from the voice of Steve Inskeep, host of NPR's Morning Edition, who said matter-of-factly -- and without any hesitation -- "David Bowie is dead."

With these four words, "David Bowie is dead," immediately I sat up in bed, confused, my head spinning. Fight back tears, I began remembering the many faces and sounds of this most innovative, iconic and illustrious artist and musician.

The 69-year-old Bowie's career had staying power -- five decades and 25 albums -- stretched over two centuries. Imagine that. His hits were many. "Fame," "Heroes," "Young Americans," "Changes," "Let's Dance," "Modern Love," "China Girl," immediately come to mind. But there are so many more, too. Bowie excelled at mixing rock, jazz, disco, pop, soul, glam, art rock, hard rock, metal, punk, electronica with ease. He bent genres with his music -- and was gender-bending with his many personas.

David Bowie ~ 30 essential songs:

David Bowie / His artistic breakthrough came with
the gender-bending persona Ziggy Stardust.
In remembering Bowie, The Hollywood Reporter wrote: "Bowie's artistic breakthrough came with 1972's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, an album that fostered the notion of rock star as space alien. Fusing British mod with Japanese kabuki styles and rock with theater, Bowie created the flamboyant, androgynous alter ego Ziggy Stardust."

Rolling Stone called the influential Bowie "One of the most original and singular voices in rock & roll for nearly five decades" noting that the British artist and musician "championed mystery, rebellion and curiosity in his music. Ever unpredictable, the mercurial artist and fashion icon wore many guises throughout his life."

A Tuesday Night Memo explores David Bowie's "Where Are We Now?" 

Soon, after word of Bowie's passing spread through social media, the tributes and accolades began pouring in, both from musicians and music critics.

"The right words would be written in ink on card, not to be suddenly and brutally, like the news. In acknowledgement, the lights on this particular and peculiar little theatre will be lowered for a while. With deepest gratitude and respectful condolences to the family and friends of a truly great artist, beautiful melodist and elegant gentleman," wrote Elvis Costello on his Facebook page.

Sting on the passing of David Bowie wrote: "Trudie and I were totally captivated by his energetic charm, his extraordinary music, his art and his unique spirit. We will never forget him."

The Rolling Stones issued a statement: "The Rolling Stones are shocked and deeply saddened to hear of the death of our dear friend David Bowie. As well as being a wonderful and kind man, he was an extraordinary artist and a true original." Added Mick Jagger: "David was always an inspiration to me. He was wonderfully shameless in his work. We had so many good times together. He was my friend. I will never forget him."

Peter Ames Carlin, the author of several books, including biographies of Bruce Springsteen and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, wrote on his Facebook page: "I am both crushed and awed by David Bowie's death. That he knew he was dying, that that fact informed everything about this epic work of art he unleashed hours before he died. That 'Lazarus,' the song and especially the video, are such beautifully rendered works about his own life and death. He turned death into a creation. It's kind of the ultimate act of artistry, that he could transform the dousing of the lights into such a spectacular life-affirming event."

On the PBS News Hour, Rolling Stone critic Anthony DeCurtis said: "He continually reinvented himself. David Bowie never seemed old." Added British Prime Minister David Cameron: "David Bowie was a genius. For someone my age, he provided a lot of the soundtrack of our lives."

Indeed, Bowie wrote anthems for the alienated, mixing rock music and theatricality throughout his career. Think Major Tom, think Ziggy Stardust, think Thin White Duke. He influenced generations of musicians and fans. I remember the thrill of spinning his early eighties album, Let's Dance, as a college DJ in Saint Paul, Minnesota. It remains my favorite David Bowie album.

On the occasion of his 69th birthday last week, Bowie released a new album called Blackstar, made in collaboration with a quintet of jazz musicians. Said NPR: "Bowie's work often addressed inner truths and existential questions. He was always morphing his sound and his look."

David Bowie / His new album, 'Blackstar' showed him
to be an adventurous artist and musician to the end.
Like so many, immediately after learning the news of Bowie's death, I began exploring his life and career. That afternoon, I purchased Blackstar via iTunes. Not surprisingly, it has been the most downloaded album on iTunes throughout the world this week. That evening as I sat down to dinner, I listened to it in its entirety for the first time after hearing "Lazarus" a few times in recent weeks on the "Morning Becomes Eclectic" show via KCRW.com.

I enjoyed what I heard from start to finish, and like the chameleon Bowie had been his entire career, I'm not surprised he avoided rock & roll. Instead, Bowie surrounded himself with a group of very bright and talented jazz musicians and created a jazz fusion album, a throwback to Miles Davis circa early seventies. It's very listenable and I think longtime Bowie enthusiasts will applaud his sound and direction.

"It could've gone so terribly wrong," wrote NPR music critic Barry Walters in his review of Blackstar. Fortunately, it didn't and Blackstar showed Bowie to be an adventurous artist and musician to the end.

David Bowie / "What I'm most proud of is that I can't help
but notice that I've affected the vocabulary of pop music."
As the subject of countless interviews, Bowie once said: "My entire career, I've only really worked with the same subject matter. The trousers may change, but the actual words and subjects I've always chosen to write with are things to do with isolation, abandonment, fear and anxiety -- all the high points of one's life."

Bowie will be remembered as a musical master of reinvention, a pop genius who kept getting it right.

"What I'm most proud of is that I can't help but notice that I've affected the vocabulary of pop music," he said. "For me, frankly, as an artist, that's the most satisfying thing for the ego."

Video of "Blackstar": Courtesy of YouTube. Photos: Courtesy of Google Images. 

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Kendrick Lamar: Mirroring the energy of his music

Kendrick Lamar is a 28-year-old poet and lyrical genius whose body language during a performance mirrors the energy of his music.

Lamar's raps incorporate elements of funk, spoken-word poetry, and jazz. He prefers to label his music simply as "human music." His sense of freedom and willingness to explore many music genres, such as jazz fusion, sparked and inspired the late David Bowie as the musical icon worked on his final album 'Blackstar.'

Lamar's new "Untitled 2," which he recently debuted on NBC's The Tonight Show, explores a backstory of his life and his view of America.

"Music moves with the times. It's not something we have to consciously do," Lamar revealed in an interview earlier this month in The New York Times. "This is what's happening in the world -- not only to me but to my community. Whenever I make music, it reflects where I'm at mentally."

Lamar's critically-acclaimed concept album To Pimp a Butterfly (which was ranked by Rolling Stone as the best album of 2015) has been nominated 11 times in nine Grammy categories, including Song ("Alright") and Album of the Year (for the second time). According to Nielsen, it has sold more than 750,000 copies and been streamed 375 million times -- all without a hit single. However, it should be noted that "Alright," which garnered four Grammy nominations, has become a unifying soundtrack to the Black Lives Matter protests nationwide.

On being chosen as the best album of 2015, Rolling Stone wrote: "Musically, lyrically and emotionally, Kendrick Lamar's third album is a one-of-a-kind masterpiece -- a sprawling epic that's both the  year's most bumptious party music and its most gripping therapy session. A rap superstar at last, after years on the underground grind, Lamar wrestles with the depression and survivor's guilt that followed his fame and success by turning to heroes from Ralph Ellison and Richard Pryor to Smokey Robinson and Kris Kross to Nelson Mandela and Tupac. He lives large. He contains multitudes."

Kendrick Lamar / His 'To Pimp a Butterfly' is
part bumptious party music, part gripping therapy session.
"Being acknowledged for your work is always a great accomplishment," said Lamar, "whether it's people in my city, kids in the street, all the way up to the Grammys." The Compton, California native, born Kendrick Lamar Duckworth, and also known as K-Dot, added: "This album did what I wanted it to do. That's not necessarily to sell tons of records -- though it didn't do bad at that either -- but to actually have an impact on the people and on the culture of music."

I'll admit, I'm not a big follower of rap or of Lamar's career. However, as a devoted viewer of late-night television, I took notice when Stephen Colbert anointed Lamar to be his first musical guest when he took over as host of CBS's The Late Show from David Letterman last September, and I tuned in with great interest to see him perform. From that appearance to last week's performance on The Tonight Show, it's easy to see why critics make a point of saying "make sure you're watching and not just listening" to Lamar's raps because of the way the movement of his body relates to the energy of his message. His raw voice and self-interrogative style have its pleasure and rewards.

Kendrick Lamar / "Make sure you're watching and not
just listening." His raw voice and self-interrogative style
have its pleasure and rewards.
As I watched and listened, I warmed to Lamar's personal style of simple braided hair and attire that included non-baggy jeans, white kicks and a plaid long-sleeved shirt over a dark t-shirt that said "Faith Love." He was unconsumed by expensive chains and did not fit the mold of most hip hop artists.

As Lamar performed "Untitled 2," one could see a building intensity that one critic the next day called "absolutely mesmerizing."

To see the lyrics to "Untitled 2": http://genius.com/Kendrick-lamar-untitled-2-blue-faces-lyrics

Another critic, writing for Slate.com, wrote: "Lamar's emotion builds throughout the song and reaches its triumphant peak at the end, as Lamar repeats, 'You ain't gotta tell me that I'm the one,' and finishes with 'Yes, I'm the one'."

To learn more about Kendrick Lamar: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kendrick_Lamar

Video: Courtesy of YouTube. Photos: Courtesy of Google Images.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

My New Year's resolution? Read more books!

To read or not to read / So many books ... so little time.

Happy New Year everyone!

We're less than a week into 2016, and just as everyone is writing out their New Year's resolutions, I've jotted down a few of my own.

One resolution that's near the top of my list each year is to read more. "So many books ... so little time," reads the slogan printed on one of my tattered, well-worn navy-colored t-shirts that I bought a few years ago at The Elliott Bay Book Company, one of my favorite independent bookstores in the country, located on Capitol Hill in Seattle, Washington.

Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle /
One of my favorite independent bookstores in the country. 
When I say "read more" I mean books. Oh, sure. I stay abreast of current events by reading The New York Times, both in print and online, on a daily basis, and I enjoy giving a good read to periodicals like Monocle, the London-based monthly that covers world affairs, culture, food, and design. 

And, of course, there's always perusing my Facebook news feed, to stay current on what's trending, too.

But, what about books, you ask?

Roger Angell / This Old Man: All in Pieces.
This book is on my reading list for 2016.
Yes, books, remember them? It's the foundation behind what made Amazon.com one of the most successful online retailers. Before Twitter, before Facebook, before Netflix, before texting sapped all of our intellectual energy, there were books. I have several bookshelves at home lined with hundreds of titles that I've bought or received as gifts over the years. I'm proud of my collection of books by The New Yorker writers Roger Angell and Calvin Trillin, among many. However, a few years ago, in a space-saving and budget-cutting effort, I trimmed back on the number of new titles I bought and, instead, decided to start making better use of the local public library.

Looking back on 2015, I can say without boasting that I made good use of my Oakland Public Library card. I checked out seven books at our local branch library. One thing I've learned about libraries is this: If you're willing to wait for a popular best-seller or a new title to become available, checking out library books is a good way to save money (and, I might add, bookshelf space) while also showing support for public libraries.

Watching Comedy Central's The Daily Show, I've found, is a pretty good barometer about good books to read, and before he left the show last summer, former host Jon Stewart always brought out the best in authors. You could judge by his interest in a book if it was worth reading. Fortunately, new Daily Show host Trevor Noah is carrying on the tradition begun by Stewart.

Among the books which I read during 2015 were:

Mark Bittman on food / A Bone To Pick 
Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson
Midnight in Siberia by David Green

A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power by Jimmy Carter

The Children of Willesden Green: Beyond the Kindertransport: A Memoir of Music, Love, and Survival by Mona Golabek

Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation by Michael Pollan

Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

You Can't Make This Up by Al Michaels

Mona Golabek / The Children of Willesden Lane:
Beyond the Kindertransport:
A Memoir of Music, Love, and Survival
A Bone to Pick: The Good News and Bad News About Food by Mark Bittman

Leap: Leaving a Job with No Plan B to Find the Career and Life You Really Want by Tess Vigeland

Among the ties that bind these titles are my interest in non-fiction, memoirs, sports, food, travel and public radio personalities, as well as interest in world religions. And, of course, good writing and good stories always garner my attention.

Looking ahead, I wonder if it's possible that I can increase my output to 12 books, thus reading an average of a book a month? Let's see, I've already started a wonderful memoir by the gifted New Orleans actor Wendell Pierce, The Wind in the Reeds: A Storm, a Play, and the City That Would Not Be Broken, and I received Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta by award-winning adventure writer Richard Grant as a Christmas gift from my brother. Plus, I can't wait to begin reading Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, the acclaimed 674-page memoir by Elvis Costello that spans his almost four-decade music career. So, yes, reading a book a month seems like a reasonable goal.

I'm optimistic.

Now, if I can just somehow find a way to unplug my TV set and turn off my iPhone.

Photos of Elliott Bay Book Company by Michael Dickens © 2015. Book illustrations: Courtesy of Google Images. 

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Jerry Seinfeld and the art of conversation

President Obama and Jerry Seinfeld sharing the art of conversation --
and a good laugh, too.

Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee is a show that focuses on the art of conversation. It's a gathering of comedian Jerry Seinfeld and his friends, going for a cup of coffee, driving in cool old cars, sharing stories all the way.

"It's a show about trust," said former Daily Show host Jon Stewart.

Now, in an ultimate show of trust, President Obama is going to ride in a car and share coffee with Seinfeld. The president will appear in the opening show of the seventh season of the popular web series, which debuts on Dec. 30. He becomes the first non-comedian to appear with Seinfeld.

In their episode filmed earlier this month in Washington, D.C., Mr. Obama and Seinfeld take turns driving a blue 1963 Corvette Sting Ray split-window coupe around the White House driveway that encircles the South Lawn, then sit down to chat over coffee in a staff dining room.

According to the White House, the president's appearance in Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee was "an opportunity to pull back the curtain for Americans on life in the White House.

"The president and Jerry had a unique, candid conversation that focused largely on the lighter side of the presidency," said a White House statement last week.

"Growing up in the '60s my kid dream was always to be an astronaut -- doing a comedy show with President Obama in and around the White House felt like going into space," said Seinfeld in a statement released by Crackle, Sony's online video site and the show's distributor.

At 61, Seinfeld has been a comedian his whole adult life. He's one of the best when it comes to the art of observational humor, whether talking about personal relationships or the nuances of uncomfortable social obligations. It's what we loved about the New York native in Seinfeld, which spanned 180 episodes over nine seasons from 1989-98 on NBC. The series remains a fixture in reruns across the country.

Now, in transitioning from TV to the internet, Seinfeld takes an offbeat approach that shows the other side of the comedy world, something he feels talk shows and interviews can't or don't let you see. The web-based comedy series he created, directs and stars in debuted in 2012 and is shot using DSLR and interior-mounted Go-Pro cameras.

A who's who of contemporary A-list comedians, including Chris Rock, Ricky Gervais, Sarah Silverman and Amy Schumer as well as iconic comedians Mel Brooks and Don Rickles, have been coffee companions of Seinfeld's. So have past and present late night TV hosts such as Stewart, Jay Leno, David Letterman, Jimmy Fallon, Trevor Noah, and Stephen Colbert. Seinfeld co-stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jason Alexander and Michael Richards have also made appearances.

Each episode of Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee follows the premise of Seinfeld introducing a vintage car such as a 1952 Volkswagen Beetle or a 1967 Austin-Healey 3000, then picking up his guest comedian in that vintage car and, finally, taking them out to have coffee or dine in a restaurant. Seinfeld has filmed episodes on both coasts, in New York and Los Angeles, and he's also ventured to Portland, Oregon as well as to New Jersey and Massassuchetts. Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee can be seen by anyone, anywhere with access to the internet, and on any web-enabled device. And, don't worry, the language in each 12-to-20 minute episode is family friendly.

The unscripted conversations between Seinfeld and his companions in Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee are at times both meaningful and meandering, silly and deep. Yet, with the series having been streamed over 100 million times, they're very comfortable to watch on a smart phone.

Hardly a show about nothing.

Note: The seventh season of Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee premieres online on Dec. 30 at 11:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. Along with President Obama, other featured guests this season include Will Ferrell, Steve Martin and Garry Shandling.

Go behind the wheel of the President Obama episode of Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee: https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/behind-the-wheel-of-the-obama-episode-of-seinfelds-comedians-in-cars/2015/12/21/2d6376b0-a29b-11e5-9c4e-be37f66848bb_story.html

To watch previous episodes: http://comediansincarsgettingcoffee.com

Photo: Courtesy of comediansgettingcarsgettingcoffee.com. Video: Courtesy of YouTube. 

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Christmas 2015: Sharing our humanity

May there be peace on Earth, good will towards men.
How lovely are the messengers 
that preach us the gospel of peace!

There are so many different things that can tie together a good message about our faith, love and hope in God. And, there are plenty of good messages that are worth sharing. Sometimes, it just takes moving in the slow lane of life, observing, and enjoying the journey.

With Christmas just a few days away, I would like to share a Christmas Day poem by the 19th-century Scottish poet and essayist Robert Louis Stevenson reflecting our common humanity:

A Prayer for Christmas Morning
By Robert Louis Stevenson

The day of joy returns, Father in Heaven, and
crowns another year with peace and good will.
Help us rightly to remember the birth of Jesus, that
we may share in the song of the angels, the 
gladness of the shepherds, and the worship of the
wise men.

Close the doors of hate and open the doors of
love all over the world.

Let kindness come with every gift and good
desires with every greeting.

Deliver us from evil, by the blessing that Christ
brings, and teach us to be merry with clean hearts.

May the Christmas morning make us happy to 
be thy children.

And the Christmas evening bring us to our bed
with grateful thoughts, forgiving and forgiven, for 
Jesus's sake.


Wishing kind thoughts for a Merry Christmas. Although we are of many faiths, it is important that our common humanity allows us to share a season of peace and goodwill.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Pink Martini: The "little orchestra" that's bringing joy to the world in these troubled times

Pink Martini / The "little orchestra" that's inclusive, full of warmth and
represents many human experiences.

Pink Martini is an internationally acclaimed "little orchestra" from Portland, Oregon, founded by a couple of Harvard classmates, pianist Thomas Lauderdale and vocalist China Forbes, that mixes glamour and sophisticated easy-listening music. Since 1994, the band that the Washington Post once called "utterly cosmopolitan yet utterly unpretentious," have amassed an impressive repertoire of festive songs drawn from around the globe, including many timeless classics and a few rarely heard chestnuts.

A typical Pink Martini show -- and I speak from experience have seen the band perform nine times over the past decade in a variety of California settings -- is both multilingual and multicultural, and at holiday time it's also multi-denominational. Above all, it's inclusive -- full of warmth -- and represents many human experiences.

Through the energy and creativity of their music, Pink Martini brings joy to the world in these troubled times -- something which should make all of us feel grateful and appreciative.

"We're very much an American band," said Lauderdale, "but we spend a lot of time abroad and therefore, have the incredible diplomatic opportunity to represent a broader, more inclusive America... the America which remains the most heterogeneously populated country in the world... composed of people of every country, every language, every religion."

Pink Martini has performed on concert stages and with symphony orchestras throughout Europe and Asia, as well as in Greece, Turkey, the Middle East, Northern Africa, Australia, New Zealand, South America and North America. I have seen them perform both as a "little orchestra" as well as in concert with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. When his schedule allows, NPR "All Things Considered" host Ari Shapiro, also a Portland native, joins Pink Martini as a guest vocalist.

Pink Martini's 'Joy to the World'
Last Monday in Livermore, about 30 miles inland from Oakland, my wife and I saw our most recent Pink Martini show. It was part of a two-week "Joy to the World" bus tour through northern and coastal California towns, including Arcata, Davis, Monterey, Redding, and Santa Barbara.

On this night, the 12-member band delighted their audience at the Livermore Valley Performing Arts Center's 507-seat Bankhead Theater by performing from their expansive catalog of pop, jazz, classical and holiday songs that were beautifully sung in Latin, Hebrew, Arabic, German, Turkish, Armenian, Spanish, Italian, French, Romanian, Croatian, Chinese, Japanese and, oh yes, English, too. There was a nice mixture of charm, elegance and humor throughout the band's two-hour performance.

In a recent interview with the Santa Barbara Independent, co-lead vocalist Storm Large said: "Every language expresses love, pain, joy or grief, in whatever song I'm singing, in whatever language, it's just a matter of being honest in the feeling I'm expressing." This was plainly evident when Large sang the very serious Romanian folk tune "Pâna când nu te iubeam" ("Until I Loved You") as well as a long-time favorite of mine, the spine-tingling Croatian song "Eu plavu zoru" ("At Blue Dawn"), accompanied by violinist Nicholas Crosa.

Pink Martini performs their "Joy to the World" holiday
show in Livermore, California on Dec. 7.
Among the sacred and secular holiday songs which Pink Martini performed in Livermore were: "Little Drummer Boy," "We Three Kings," "A Snowglobe Christmas," "Talj, Talj," "La Vergine Degli Angeli," "O Holy Night," and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."

"Christmas music is so inherently joyful for me, as well as for the audience," said Large. "People just have so many good feelings around the holidays. It's a marvelous reason to sing."

Pink Martini's unique vision can be attributed to its inclusiveness of language, culture, and religion, musically. The band wants anyone and everyone to feel welcome at its shows and, if they are so encouraged, to jump up and dance. And many did dance in Livermore. The evening was complete  with an encore performance of the band's signature tune "Brazil" in which many in the audience at Large's urging formed a conga line while others danced at their seats and in the aisles.

If you think about it, said Large, "It's really the perfect recipe for 'Peace on Earth and Good Will' we hear about so often during the holidays, but sadly have witnessed quite the opposite in the world of late."

Note ~ Hear Pink Martini's "Joy to the World: A Holiday Spectacular" that's airing this month via NPR:


Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Golden State Warriors: They are the darlings of the NBA

Stephen Curry / An affable MVP who makes his art look effortless.
Barely two months into the new pro basketball season, the Golden State Warriors once again are the darlings of the National Basketball Association. Nightly, the defending champions have been providing their fans with a highly-entertaining product that sells out the house at Oakland's Oracle Arena. Five games into a two-week, seven-city road trip, the Warriors are also dazzling fans across the country in cities like Salt Lake City, Charlotte, Toronto, Brooklyn and Indianapolis, too.

The Warriors are scoring lots of points thanks to shooting the lights out from 3-point range, playing stingy defense that forces opponents into committing costly turnovers and, most of all, they are winning. Great teams find all kinds of ways to win.

Recently, the Warriors set an NBA record for most wins at the start of a season -- 16 -- and the winning streak continues, reaching 23 on Tuesday night with a 131-123 victory over the Indianapolis Pacers. The Warriors became the first NBA team to open a season with 13 consecutive road wins, breaking the 12-0 record set by 1969-70 New York Knicks.

Draymond Green / The Warriors' power forward scored 22
points and added 9 rebounds and 7 assists against the Nets.
So, the perfect season lives on -- 23-0 and counting -- and when you consider the Warriors won their final four regular-season games last season, the Warriors have 27 consecutive victories, which ties the second-longest winning streak in the NBA's history. Next, the Warriors complete their seven-city road trip this week with games at Boston and Milwaukee on Friday and Saturday.

Last season, en route to winning the team's first NBA crown in 40 years, the "Dubs" achieved a franchise-best 16-game winning streak, going five weeks without losing a game. One of the reasons for the Warriors' success can be attributed to having one of the brightest minds in the game in head coach Steve Kerr. However, he's been sidelined this season while recovering  from two off-season back surgeries. At the start of this season, Kerr passed the reigns to one of his assistants, Luke Walton, and the interim head coach hasn't missed a beat.

Luke Walton / So far, he's made all the right moves
as interim coach of the Warriors.
So far, Walton has made all the right moves, and he's getting the most out of his deep roster of talented stars -- point guard Stephen Curry, shooting guard Klay Thompson, and power forward Draymond Green -- and "second unit" role players like Andre Iguodala, Ron Livingston and Leandro Barbosa, each who could start for any other NBA team.

Nobody has been able to stop the Warriors this season -- maybe for a quarter, but not for all 48 minutes. When the Warriors take the court, writes San Francisco Chronicle columnist Bruce Jenkins, they "have five players who can run, pass, set screens, rebound, play fiercely motivated defense and, most importantly, hit the three-point shot.

"They love playing together: the fancier and more unselfish, the better. Curry is being linked with the all-time greats and Green looks to be a certain All-Star."

As the accolades come pouring in for the Warriors, the national media has begun to take notice. The other week, I read an utterly fascinated feature about the affable Curry in The New York Times in which Graham Lustig, the artistic director of the Oakland Ballet Company, said "there's a certain musicality to the way his body works. It looks like he's moving to a slightly different dimension as everyone else. Incredible, unbelievable control. And that's what you want in a dancer."

With each three-point basket shot from way downtown and every spinning layup, the 6-foot-3 Curry is reinventing the game of basketball -- transcending the sport, if you will -- and turning it into an artistic performance. According to Lustig, "much of his aesthetic appeal was rooted in what ballet dancers seek most: to make their art look effortless.

"Steph doesn't really look like he's putting in a lot of effort, does he? I'm not suggesting at all that he doesn't use effort. It's just that he doesn't display it, and I think that's probably at the core of what this is about."

Stephen Curry / "When he's hot, he makes things happen,
says teammate Leandro Barbosa.
Far from effortless, Curry began the season by averaging a league-best 31.6 points per game to go with 6.0 assists, 5.2 rebounds and 2.5 steals in winning Western Conference player of the month honors for November. With his 44-point outburst Saturday at Toronto, which included 15 points in a seven-minute span en route to an 112-109 victory, Curry has scored more than 40 points in seven games this season.

"Steph knows he's going to be on the court for most of the game, and he's going to have the ball in his hands for most of the game," Walton said after Sunday's victory against Brooklyn.

"He can pick and choose when he wants to get aggressive and take over and when he wants to get his teammates involved. That's his call out there, and he does a great job judging when to do both."

Toronto point guard DeMar DeRozan told the San Francisco Chronicle: "He's a heck of a player, and he makes it look so effortless." After a recent win at Phoenix in which Curry scored 41 points by knocking home 11-of-20 field goal attempts -- including 9-of-16 3-pointers -- in just 31 minutes on the court, Barbosa said: "When he's hot, he makes things happen. We were just enjoying watching him play."

While Curry seems to be enjoying himself shining in the spotlight -- putting on a boffo show for the fans both at home and on the road, which have included hip-hop mogul Drake in Toronto -- and contributing to his team's success, where their wins this season are coming by an average of nearly 16 points per game, the basketball world can't seem to get enough. The Warriors are not only a hot ticket at the box office, sales of their team merchandise have skyrocketed this season, too.

The Golden State Warriors / Celebrating the team's first
NBA championship in 40 years. 
Collectively, the Warriors show no signs of letting up. They love the feeling of being winners and their confidence remains high. In their win over Indiana on Tuesday, it was Thompson's turn to shine. His 39-point performance included 10 three-pointers.

Winning motivates this team. There's no boredom or conflict. After the Warriors' victory in Toronto Saturday, Curry called the team's winning streak "surreal." He told the San Francisco Chronicle that it doesn't sound right when you say it out loud. "But we're very confident when we're out there on the floor. We're very comfortable, and we expect to win every night."

Their fans love a winner and Curry and the Warriors keep delivering victories.

A postscript: On Saturday, a night after a gut-wrenching, physically taxing double-overtime victory over the Boston Celtics, which elevated the team's win-loss record this season to 24-0 and winning streak to 28 games, the Golden State Warriors finally lost a game, 108-95 to the Milwaukee Bucks in Milwaukee. It was the seventh and final game of a two-week road trip across America and Canada. The streak had to end sometime.

Photos: Courtesy of Google Images.